Many who consider themselves "born again" have never really understood what the Bible teaches about this important subject. Is "born again" an event, a process, or something far more profound than most professing Christians can even imagine?
The gentle September air wafted through the open windows of the little country church where I sat as a child. Following the custom of countless other Protestant churches large and small, our little church was having a "revival meeting." The visiting minister gave a stirring sermon traditional for such occasions, and strongly emphasized that we must give our hearts to the Lord and experience a new birth. "You must be born again!" he emphasized, over and over, throughout the week-long revival.
Like millions of others, those of us present that evening saw the new birth as a one-time, emotional experience that takes place when an individual "accepts Christ." Is that really what Jesus Christ meant when He told Nicodemus that one must be "born again" to inherit the Kingdom of God?
Make no mistake about it; a new birth is absolutely vital! Without it we will never see the Kingdom of God. Jesus Christ said so in John 3:3! Yet the question remains: what exactly is the new birth that Jesus described?
Millions, influenced by Protestant evangelical preaching, understand "being born again" in much the same way as did the revival preacher to whose altar call I responded more than 40 years ago. Many other professing Christians, however, see it differently. Those whose background is in one of the more formal, "sacramental" churches have quite a different view of the "new birth." The Dictionary of the Bible and Religion explains in the article "Regeneration" that the rite of infant baptism, practiced not only by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but by many Protestant churches as well, "is historically known as baptismal regeneration and rests on the belief that the sacrament, when performed aright, has the power to confer what it signifies, namely regeneration or new birth of the child to God's family."
Churches that view infant baptism as a sacrament believe that the ceremony itself confers regeneration, and that the baptized person at that point enters into the Kingdom of God. Evangelicals would argue that the individual must first make his own personal profession of faith, after which he is "born again" and is, from that moment on, in the Kingdom.
Belief that we must be "born again" is not limited to those who profess Christianity. In today's world, both Buddhists and Hindus also talk about rebirth. In its article on "Regeneration," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible explains that many of the ancient mystery religions taught that their adherents were born anew through special rituals. They used the term "regeneration... to designate the salvation attained for the believer by means of initiation." From Stoics and Pythagoreans, to adherents of Mithraism and of the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries, there was belief in the necessity of rebirth.
Arguments in religion have a tendency to spill over into other areas of life. Back in the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter became President of the United States, "born again" was thrust onto the front pages of newspapers. Since then, the term "born again" has increasingly been used to distinguish fervent believers in a felt, experienced Christianity from others whom they view as just "nominal Christians." Many who stress the importance of what they call a "born-again experience" also look to "speaking in tongues" and similar types of emotional, charismatic phenomena as proof of their having experienced the "new birth."
Those who view "born again" as a matter of sacrament and those who view it as personal experience do agree on one point. Both viewpoints assume that Christians are already born again at this present time. That belief is basic to their view of God's plan of salvation. But are they correct? Understanding when the new birth occurs is crucial to clearly recognizing what is involved in salvation.
Salvation is commonly misunderstood, even by professing Christians. According to the Bible, it is a process! Almost no one understands that vital fact. But first, let us ask: why do we need to be saved? Saved from what? After understanding these issues, we can begin to understand the when and how of salvation.
Simply put, we are saved from death—eternal death! The Apostle Paul tells us clearly: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). He explains: "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (6:23). It is the divine Father who takes the initiative in bringing us to salvation. "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8; cf. John 6:37, 44). Does the death of Christ then save us? Notice this startling truth: "Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (Romans 5:9–10).
Notice that there is a salvation process! We all have sinned. In other words, we all have broken God's holy, righteous law (1 John 3:4, KJV). In fact, Paul explains in Colossians 1:21 that we were previously alienated from God, and enemies in our mind, because of our own wicked works. As a result, we deserve eternal death. God took the initiative in making salvation possible; Christ took our place and died in our stead. His death alone, however, does not save us! It makes possible our justification and reconciliation. It means that we can be innocent and brought into harmony with God. Although God took the initiative, we must respond to His initiative. Peter explained this to those who heard his sermon on the day of Pentecost: "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).
That is really only the first stage, however. At baptism, we make a commitment to obey God, and begin a spiritual development process. In Matthew 24:13, Jesus Christ makes it plain that only those who endure to the end will be saved. Salvation is a process that begins for us when we receive God's Holy Spirit following baptism, and culminates when "this mortal must put on immortality" at the resurrection that occurs at Christ's return (1 Corinthians 15:53).
Between our conversion and our death, God expects us to do something! Paul wrote: "Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Corinthians 7:1). Jesus Christ summarized what we must do in response to God's love when He said: "To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne" (Revelation 3:21). We do not inherit the Kingdom at conversion; rather, God expects us to live a life of growth and overcoming, empowered by His Holy Spirit.
In Galatians 2:20, Paul explains how we are to grow spiritually: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (KJV). Christ not only died to pay the penalty for sin, but after three days and three nights He came forth out of His grave alive forevermore. He was raised in power and glory as the "firstborn from the dead" (Colossians 1:18). It is through His life that we also might have life eternal (Romans 5:10).
Just as new life is imparted in the process of human birth—with a begettal, a period of growth and development and then a coming forth into the world—so also is new life imparted in the process of salvation. We are begotten, we grow and develop as Christians, and then we enter into the Kingdom of God. The "when" of salvation is the resurrection from the dead, when we will finally inherit the Kingdom of God as spirit-born sons of God. Christ said in Luke 20:36 that we will be the "children of God, being children of the resurrection" (NRSV).
Nicodemus was shocked. He had come to Jesus secretly, at night, and had privately acknowledged that he and other religious leaders recognized Him as a man from God. Did he think Jesus would be appreciative of this stamp of approval, private though it may have been?
Whatever the Pharisee had expected, what Jesus told him came as a complete shock. You see, as a Pharisee, Nicodemus did not consider his salvation even to be in question! After all, he was a scrupulous observer of the law according to Pharisaic tradition. He had been born of the seed of Abraham to whom God had anciently made the promises. He had been circumcised on the eighth day, which made him a member of the covenant community. He was not one of the hated publicans, whom observant Jews considered unclean and sinful because of continual contact with Gentiles. He was not one of the am ha eretz—"the people of the land"—the ordinary masses who were so concerned with mundane matters of making a living that they had few free hours for the study of the Torah.
The Kingdom of God was the hope of Pharisees such as Nicodemus. They believed in the resurrection, and believed that the Messiah would establish a Kingdom to rule all nations just as foretold by the prophets. However, Jews of the first century looked upon the Kingdom and the resurrection in almost wholly physical and materialistic terms. They looked upon entrance into the Kingdom as their birthright through the promises made in the covenant with Abraham. While they recognized the necessity of a Gentile proselyte shedding his old identity following circumcision and the "mikvah" (ritual immersion) to become a child of Abraham, they saw no similar need for themselves (cf. John 8:32–36). Were they not already the children of Abraham, and therefore heirs of the promises by nature?
Herein lay Nicodemus' shock at Jesus Christ's response to him. Christ said that Nicodemus was not entitled to inheritance in the Kingdom of God based upon his physical parentage as a descendant of Abraham. Entrance into that Kingdom is solely based upon spiritual parentage.
In John 1, setting the stage for the John 3 account of Nicodemus' conversation, the Apostle John contrasted the entitlements of those who were to be born of the Spirit with those who had merely been born of the flesh. "He came unto his own possessions, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he authority to become children of God, even to them that believe unto his name: who were begotten, not of bloods, nor of the will of flesh, nor of man's will, but of God" (John 1:11–13, Panin).
The ancient Greeks understood conception to take place when the seed of the father was united with the blood of the mother. Christ was emphasizing that this conception, which occurs in the mother's body as a result of human choice and passion, is not the one that produces offspring who will inherit the Kingdom. Ultimately it is not our physical parentage that is paramount, but rather our spiritual parentage!
The Greek word gennao is rendered into English by both "born" and "beget." Sometimes Bible translators use these terms as though they were totally interchangeable. But that is just not so—and this seemingly small matter can lead to great confusion and result in a major error in understanding.
Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament says that gennao means "properly: of men begetting children… more rarely of women giving birth to children" (Strong's no. 1,080).
The Interpreter's Bible, a 12-volume commentary, gives a simple but clear rule regarding when gennao should be rendered "born," and when "beget" would be preferable. "Birth can be considered either from the father's side, in which the verb is to 'beget,' or from the mother's side, in which the verb is to 'bear'" (vol. 8, Abingdon Press, p. 505). To "bear" is the active form of the passive "to be born."
The English word "beget" refers to the father's causal action that generates offspring. Synonymous verbs would be "engender," "sire" or "father." To "bear" refers to the mother's role in producing offspring—i.e., carrying to term and bringing forth into the world. In English, "begettal" by the Father is limited to conception. In Greek, however, gennao has a broader meaning and can be used to cover the entire range of the process of "bringing forth" a child into the world. We find one example of this when we note that in Matthew 1:20 gennao is translated "conceived," while in Matthew 2:1 it is rendered "was born." In each case the context makes obvious the proper translation into English.
One might wonder how the same word could be used to describe both a man engendering a child and a woman giving birth to a child. The answer is that the process is viewed as a whole. A conceived child in the womb is seen as gennao—"brought forth"—of its father. (If the child dies before birth, it was "brought forth" but is no longer.) A born child is also "brought forth" of its mother. For this reason, "brought forth"—which covers every aspect of the birth process from both parents' sides—is probably the best translation of gennao. True Christians are "brought forth" of God right now. We will remain "brought forth" of Him as long as we continue to grow with God's Spirit. Then, if we are overcomers (Revelation 2:26), we will finally be fully "brought forth" when we are spiritually born at the resurrection!
The term gennao can also be found in combination with other prefixes or words to refer to regeneration or a new birth. One such term is anagennan, which literally means "rebeget" or "rebear." It occurs only in 1 Peter (1:3, 23), and refers to our having been brought forth anew by "incorruptible seed"—a process seen as beginning with spiritual conception and culminating in the resurrection (vv. 4–5).
Another word, palingenesia (literally "becoming again"), is used in Matthew 19:28 and Titus 3:5. From these two verses we again learn of a process that begins with spiritual renewal, symbolized by baptism, and culminates in the resurrection—when the 12 Apostles will have literally "become anew," having received glorified spirit bodies (1 Corinthians 15:43–44). This is when they will sit on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.
A form of this expression, palin genomai, is the only Greek expression ever used in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament in use at the time of Christ) to refer to a new birth. It is used in Job 14:14, where Job anticipates the resurrection: "If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change [palin genomai, 'rebirth'] come" (KJV).
The last expression we will examine is genan anothen in John 3:3. It is often rendered "born again," but many scholars believe it is best rendered "begotten from above." Thayer's Lexicon explains anothen as meaning "from above… from the top… Often… from heaven, or from God." But the next definition given is "from the first… Hence… anew, over again, indicating repetition (a use somewhat rare, but wrongly denied by many)" (Strong's no. 509). Thayer's Lexicon advocates this second definition for John 3:3 based on Nicodemus' response, in which he thought Christ meant he would have to "enter the second time into his mother's womb and be born" (v. 4)—a repeat of the human birth experience.
This, of course, is not the crux of the matter. Both ideas are correct. We must be brought forth again—only this time it must be from above. It is a process that originates with our Heavenly Father—not from below with an earthly father. The important point to understand about John 3 is what stage of the process is being described. In another context, genan anothen might have referred simply to our present stage of being "brought forth" or "fathered" of God right now. But, based on Christ's words in John 3, we can determine that He is indicating a completed process. Those who are genan anothen are seen here as composed of spirit (v. 3) and invisible like the wind (v. 8). So the phrase genan anothen, in the immediate context of John 3, is best rendered "fully brought forth again"—i.e., born again as "children of God, being the children of the resurrection" (Luke 20:36, KJV)!
—John H. Ogwyn
The biblical illustration of being "born again" is analogous to the physical birth process. The spiritual regeneration that occurs at baptism is compared to begettal by one's father. Following begettal, we must grow and develop as Christians just as a fetus must grow and develop inside the mother before it is ready to be born. The Bible compares the actual birth to the resurrection. This is made clear in John 3:6 when Jesus told Nicodemus: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 15:50–53 that, while flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, we will be changed into immortal spirit at the resurrection.
Just as the wind possesses great power yet is invisible, so also will those be who have actually been born of the Spirit (John 3:8). In this life we have been like Adam—having a physical, mortal body. After the resurrection from the dead, we will have a glorified spirit body—just like Jesus Christ following His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:43–49; Revelation 1:13–15). Our "vile body" will be changed to be like His "glorious body" (Philippians 3:21). Jesus Christ no longer grows tired or hungry. He is no longer subject to pain or death. Rather, He emerged from the grave never to die again! Jesus was restored to the glory that He shared with the Father before the world was, and now sits at the Father's right hand as our Intercessor and soon-coming King (John 17:4; Hebrews 4:14–16).
In Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 1:5, Jesus Christ is called the "firstborn from the dead." In Romans 8:29, He is termed the "firstborn among many brethren." This clearly implies that we will also be "born from the dead"! The Greek term translated "firstborn" is prototokos. Protos is a Greek word meaning "first in order and importance." This meaning is demonstrated by its use as a prefix in English words such as "prototype."
While the Bible uses many analogies to characterize true Christians—such as new-born babes in 1 Peter 2:2, adolescent children in Hebrews 12:6–7, living stones to be constructed into a spiritual temple in 1 Peter 2:5 or parts of the human body in 1 Corinthians 12:12—the new birth nevertheless remains the most powerful and complete description of what is literally involved in our entrance into the Kingdom of God. It explains what salvation is really all about—becoming literal sons of God (Hebrews 2:10).
Right now, true Christians are heirs, but not yet inheritors. Christ makes it plain that it is only at the resurrection, "When the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him..." that He will say to the resurrected saints, "Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom" (Matthew 25:31, 34). Jesus Christ clearly revealed to His disciples in Matthew 24:13 that only those who endure and persevere to the very end will be saved. God has a great ultimate purpose. He is reproducing Himself in us! We can be in God's Family as fully born children—younger brothers of Jesus Christ who was the firstborn of many brethren (Romans 8:29).
In the ceremony of baptism, Christians prefigure the resurrection itself (Romans 6:1–5). It is at the resurrection that we will finally put on immortality and actually inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15:50–53). We are symbolically buried in a watery grave, and then emerge out of the water to walk in newness of life. In John 3:5, Christ referred to the necessity of being born both of water and of the Spirit. In the Bible, water is often used as a type of the Holy Spirit (John 7:38–39). Emerging from the waters of baptism is a symbolic birth—a type of our actual rebirth at the resurrection.
To equate the biblical "born again" with conversion, or an emotional experience at baptism, is to miss the entire point that salvation is a process! Salvation begins with our receiving God's Holy Spirit after baptism and thus becoming a partaker "of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). Christians then grow in grace and knowledge throughout the rest of their physical lives. The salvation process will culminate at the resurrection with the Christian's full arrival into the glorious Kingdom of God as a fully glorified, Spirit-born son of God. Truly, God is "bringing many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:10)! Will you be one of them? If so, you must be "born again"!